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Last Updated: Friday, 12 November, 2004, 16:44 GMT
Leaders pay tribute to Arafat in Cairo
Peter Biles
By Peter Biles
BBC world affairs correspondent

In stark contrast to the chaotic scenes in Ramallah on Friday, Yasser Arafat's formal military funeral in Cairo was a sombre and dignified occasion.

Arafat funeral in Cairo
At times the service seemed like a state funeral
A few hours before the body of the Palestinian leader was flown home to the West Bank, heads of state and hundreds of other foreign dignitaries, representing around 50 countries, gathered in the Egyptian capital to pay their last respects.

The enduring image was the sight of Yasser Arafat's tearful widow, Suha, and their eight-year-old daughter, Zahwa, standing among the mourners.

But an impressive turn-out of world leaders reflected the powerful influence that Yasser Arafat exerted on the international stage for three decades, before his political confinement in Ramallah in 2001.

The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, greeted many of the guests as they assembled in the Cairo district of Helliopolis before the funeral procession.

The leaders of Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia were present.

Mr Arafat had lived in all three countries during his long years in exile, as he continued the struggle for Palestinian statehood.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia were also here.

They were two of the leaders from the Arab world who would have found it politically impossible to attend the funeral had it been held in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Dignity

The presence of two prominent African heads of state, South African President Thabo Mbeki and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, was a reminder of Mr Arafat's long-standing moral support for Africa's former liberation movements.

Arafat's widow Suha
Arafat's widow, Suha, with a girl believed to be daughter, Zahwa
There had been speculation that the former US President Bill Clinton might also be in Cairo, but the highest ranking American representative was Assistant Secretary of State, William Burns.

After funeral prayers at a local mosque, Mr Arafat's coffin - draped in a Palestinian flag - was placed on a horse-drawn gun carriage at the head of a military procession.

Walking behind, President Mubarak led the mourners as the cortege made its way to the Almaza military air base, near Cairo's international airport.

With plenty of military pomp and precision, this looked at times like a state funeral. But it was an event closed to the Egyptian public.

Thousands of police lined the roads in the vicinity to ensure the tightest-possible security.

Many journalists could only watch the proceedings from a distance.

But at 1200 local time [1000 GMT], we all heard the roar of an Egyptian military transport plane and saw it rise above the Cairo skyline, taking Yasser Arafat eastwards to his final resting place in Ramallah.

In death, the city where Mr Arafat was born had granted the Palestinian leader some of the dignity which had eluded him during the political isolation that marked the final years of his life.


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